Boehner Keynotes CHEA Conference

Publication Number 18 February 4, 2005

Congressman John A. Boehner (R-OH) told a Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) audience that Congress wants more accountability in higher education, that it is still early in the development of the 2005 phase of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and that he wants their help and advice in shaping the final version of a reauthorization bill. Mr. Boehner is one of the most powerful voices in shaping federal higher education policies, as he chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that will re-write the HEA law. Boehner opened the 2005 CHEA Annual Conference in Phoenix with his January 25 keynote address.

Goodman Sets the Stage

Chairman Boehner was introduced by a friend who is a public member of the CHEA Board of Directors, N. Victor Goodman, a distinguished Ohio attorney with long experience in education policy and public affairs in Ohio. Goodman’s association with John Boehner goes back to Boehner’s service in the Ohio legislature in the 1990s. Goodman drew attention to the Reauthorization Agenda for improved accountability in accreditation released by the CHEA Board in April 2003. He said that Mr. Boehner would not be surprised to hear that accreditation issues in his initial (2004) bill caused some concerns from CHEA member institutions and recognized accreditors. Goodman observed that the 2004 House HEA bill was “generally on the same page” with the CHEA Reauthorization Agenda, but that in legislation, “the devil is always in the details.” Boehner later echoed these sentiments and expressed his desire to work out a good bill with assistance from CHEA and others.

Candor and Conciliation

Citing the $75 billion magnitude of the federal student assistance programs, Chairman Boehner justified his push for greater public accountability of colleges and universities under federal law. He repeated his same three themes from last year for a new HEA statute: improved access, enhanced accountability, and more public information. In his usual direct style, Boehner noted that the job of Congress was different from the job of campus leaders and – candidly – that Congress would reshape the HEA for greater accountability even if campus leaders were uncomfortable. As chair of the committee, Mr. Boehner will put out proposals to meet what he takes to be the public clamor for accountability that many Members of Congress hear in Washington. He said that the chair’s job is to incorporate the views of all the 50 members of the committee into a final bill.

Unlike 2003 and 2004, Chairman Boehner struck a more conciliatory note regarding higher education associations and their representatives. He thanked the audience for the good work they do and said that higher education and accreditation serve our country and provide opportunity for our citizens. He said that he has worked with CHEA and other organizations and plans to do that work in 2005.

The Accreditation Issues

Chairman Boehner then spoke at length on three specific accreditation issues in the HEA: distance education, transfer of credit and transparency of the accreditation process. Boehner demonstrated a clear understanding of the legislative details and the views of the various constituencies on them.

On distance education, he said that federal student aid programs must include more of these students and he wanted to work with CHEA and accrediting organizations to assure the quality of the expanding programs. Congress wants to focus on these students, and the details of the bill can be worked out to let accreditation serve this purpose.

Chairman Boehner said that his proposals had been misunderstood on transfer of credit. He assured the group: “I will tell you point blank: the federal government will not tell institutions what courses to accept in transfers.” Boehner said that every member of Congress gets complaints on this issue from their constituents. He also noted that both he and his family members had bad experiences with transfers. He wants the federal law to say three things on transfer: institutions can not discriminate solely on the basis of the accreditation of the sending school; institutions need to publish their transfer policies so student can know what might transfer; and institutions need to follow their stated policies.

Finally, Boehner said that the public needs to know more about what accreditors are doing (or are not doing). In our society, information is power; and he wants to empower students and their families to make better choices in higher education. The more information the better, so that information on quality assurance can drive the marketplace.

Next Steps

Chairman Boehner outlined a schedule for HEA that said he would reintroduce his HEA bill as soon as next week (see note below), and he hoped the committee might take it up in April, just after the Easter Congressional recess.

Following his prepared remarks, the Congressman accepted questions from the audience. He again demonstrated a sympathetic ear to the points raised and emphasized his desire to hear all points of view.

Note: On February 2, 2005, Congressmen Boehner and McKeon introduced a new bill, HR 507, to initiate the legislative process in the new Congress on HEA reauthorization. It is quite similar to their HR 4283 from 2004. Capital Hill sources indicate that changes will be made as the Committee considers the bill. CHEA will soon provide an analysis of the new bill, HR 507, and any changes that may impact accreditation. Look for our HEA Update # 19.